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'Green Book' is up and 'Black Panther' is down: What the Directors Guild awards mean for Oscars

'Green Book' is up and 'Black Panther' is down: What the Directors Guild awards mean for Oscars
Viggo Mortensen, from left, director Peter Farrelly and Mahershala Ali on the set of "Green Book." (Patti Perret/Universal Pictures)

The last movie to win the Oscar for best picture without having the Directors Guild of America nominate its helmer was “Driving Miss Daisy” nearly three decades ago.

That means, in the wake of Tuesday’s DGA Awards nominations, this year’s best picture race likely comes down to “A Star Is Born,” “Roma,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “Vice” and “Green Book,” the latter, a crowd-pleasing movie about race relations that some critics have compared to “Driving Miss Daisy,” typically with derision.

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The connection is noteworthy. “Driving Miss Daisy” and Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book,” which won the Golden Globe for musical or comedy film Sunday, are throwback movies, filled with good intentions, life lessons and a simple optimism that divisions precipitated by centuries of racism can be healed if people simply talk and listen to each other.

“Green Book” might be considered a brave movie if it was released in 1962, the year that its real-life characters — Tony Vallelonga, a crude, resourceful hustler (Viggo Mortensen), and Don Shirley, a cultured, black pianist (Mahershala Ali) — embark on a road trip through the Deep South. But in 2019, it feels out of step with the kinds of films that Oscar voters have been embracing in recent years.

In fact, it feels incompatible with three of the other movies DGA voters nominated Tuesday.

In addition to Farrelly, the DGA nominated Bradley Cooper (“A Star Is Born”), Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”), Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”) and Adam McKay (“Vice”). Cooper’s movie is, of course, a throwback itself, a romantic update of the often-told story of show business mythmaking.

But the remaining trio — “BlacKkKlansman,” “Vice” and “Roma” — each, in their own fashion, deliver rebukes to Donald Trump’s presidency. Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” forcefully makes the case that racism continues to thrive in America, using raw news footage from Charlottesville, Va., in its coda to drive the point home. McKay’s “Vice” explores the life of former vice president Dick Cheney as a way of examining the corrupting power of politics, urging its audience to become more engaged in protecting their own interests.

And with “Roma,” Cuarón pays loving tribute to the poor village woman who raised him in Mexico City (movingly portrayed by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), creating a portrait of strength and compassion that transcends cultural differences and politics.

“People are people,” Cuarón says, a point the meditative “Roma” makes with a grace and subtlety absent from “Green Book.”

Of the five movies the DGA recognized, “Roma” feels most in line with the kind of film the ever-expanding, increasingly inclusive membership of the motion picture academy has been celebrating recently. Cuarón is the overwhelming favorite to win the DGA Award, as well as the directing Oscar. He could take the stage on Oscar night too for his dazzling cinematography and when “Roma” likely prevails for foreign language feature.

Would a best picture win feel like piling on? Perhaps. Naysayers will point out that a foreign language film has never won the best picture Oscar. But a micro-budgeted, intimate, coming-of-age portrait of a young, gay black man had never won best picture either … until “Moonlight” did two years ago. We’re dealing with a new academy and a new playbook here.

Director Ryan Coogler, left, who was overlooked for a DGA nomination, on the set of "Black Panther" with star Chadwick Boseman.
Director Ryan Coogler, left, who was overlooked for a DGA nomination, on the set of "Black Panther" with star Chadwick Boseman. (Matt Kennedy / Marvel Studios)

Notably missing from the DGA’s list are several prominent directors of critically acclaimed features: Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Favourite”), Barry Jenkins (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) and Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”).

There are also no female directors in this year’s group. Last year, “Lady Bird” helmer Greta Gerwig became only the eighth woman to receive a DGA feature-film directing nomination since the awards began in 1948.

As noted earlier, DGA nods are always good news for the movies of the nominated directors going forward at the Oscars. Since the film academy expanded the category in 2009, the only time the best picture category did not include a film by a DGA-nominated director was in 2011, when voters passed over David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

The consolation for Lanthimos, Coogler, Jenkins and others (perhaps Pawel Pawlikowski for “Cold War”) left off the DGA’s list is that the academy hasn't completely matched the guild’s director picks since 2010. In those eight years, the DGA and Oscars have overlapped in that category 35 out of 45 times.

Last year, the academy’s directors branch voters subbed in Paul Thomas Anderson (“Phantom Thread”) over DGA nominee Martin McDonagh (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”). Mel Gibson (“Hacksaw Ridge”) and Lenny Abrahamson (“Room”) are other recent directors the academy has included after DGA omissions.

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That historical, just-under 80% match rate likely means at least one member of the DGA’s list — which, coincidentally, rubber-stamped the set nominated for Golden Globes — will be disappointed when Oscar nominations are announced.

Cuarón, Cooper and Lee are safe bets to carry over. Lee has never earned an Oscar nomination, not even for “Do the Right Thing, which was passed over for a best picture nod in the year of … you guessed it … “Driving Miss Daisy.” McKay, nominated for his last movie, “The Big Short,” and Farrelly are probably on the bubble, both writer-directors best-known for their early, crazy comedies who have transitioned to more awards-friendly fare.

Cooper was a double nominee Tuesday morning, also placing in the guild’s first-time feature filmmaker category alongside Bo Burnham (“Eighth Grade”), Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”), Matthew Heineman (“A Private War”) and Boots Riley (“Sorry to Bother You”).

Winners are to be announced Feb. 2 at an untelevised ceremony at the Hollywood & Highland Center’s Ray Dolby Ballroom in Hollywood.

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